July 19, 2005

Book Review: A History of Dictionaries

A History of Dictionaries
ISBN: 9573026643
150 pp.

Have you ever liked a magazine so much that you wished it were bound and book-sized so that you could put it in your bookshelf instead of in your junk heap of magazines? "A History of Dictionaries" is one magazine lucky enough to get book treatment. It is a collection of articles about dictionaries by various authors with plenty of photographs and even a few ads thrown in. The articles lack enough depth to make this a satisfying read, but it whet my appetite for more dictionaries and more books about dictionaries.

The book includes history, interviews, recommendations for dictionaries and related books, a test to find out how much of a dictionary-nut you are, and musings about language. The most interesting part of the book is the history of dictionaries. It describes the beginning and evolution of English, French, Chinese, and multi-lingual dictionaries. The story of Chinese multi-lingual dictionaries is a story of missionaries.

One of the articles of interest to Taiwan is about why dictionaries in China do brisk business, while Taiwan’s dictionary market is dead. One of the reasons is that the government-sponsored dictionary in China, the Xiandai Hanyu Cidian (現代漢語詞典) is a mid-sized dictionary for popular consumption, whereas in Taiwan, the government-sponsored dictionary is a multi-volume research reference work. The article suggests that China has drawn a sharper line between classical Chinese and modern Chinese in its dictionaries, which leads to a greater interest in dictionaries, which are defining a newly developing language. This idea as well as some of the others should have been explained in more detail. The article would have been much better if it had suggested a course for the future dictionaries, but the article belonged to the history section, so we have to flip to the end of the book for to learn about the future.

The concluding essay of the book is an interview with Chan Man-hung (陳萬雄), manager of the Commercial Press in Hong Kong. The contributors to this book come from China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, but the book gives little consideration to the dictionary situation in Taiwan. The interview begins with the topic of the deluge of dictionaries in Mainland China, and the lack of interest in dictionaries in Taiwan. What I wanted to know, the future of dictionaries in Taiwan, does not get discussed. I think the situation in Taiwan could be improved by improving the dictionaries. With the exception of a couple of special-interest dictionaries, all dictionaries in Taiwan are ordered by radical. This would be fine if everyone got into the habit of looking up words by radical, but the only people who I have seen that are comfortable doing that are Chinese teachers. Other people usually look up the words by the pronunciation of the first character of the word in an index ordered by pronunciation, then flip to the correct page. I think publishers should make a dictionary for adults that is ordered by pronunciation (mandarin phonetic symbols). Next, dictionaries need to update their content. Chinese dictionaries are missing tons of words that you would find in an English-Chinese dictionary, and are missing tons of words that are not in any dictionaries. There are other improvement I can think of, but the lack of interest in Chinese dictionaries is mostly just due to a lack of an interest in Chinese. Taiwanese are satisfied with their Chinese language ability, and with the exception of professional writers, they are much more interested in developing their English skills. It would be great if Taiwan could pursue English-learning without losing focus on Chinese-learning, but that is not the case. Even the best general-use dictionary published in Taiwan, the Guoyu Huoyong Cidian (國語活用辭典) published by Wunan Culture Enterprise, is not even found at most bookstores.

The interview does suggest one needed development in electronic dictionaries. Chan notes that in Japan, the popular electronic dictionaries are based on reputable paper version, while in Taiwan and China, the biggest selling electronic dictionaries are based on no-name unproven dictionaries. Publishers of quality dictionaries need to hurry up and get their product out before the market is saturated with shoddy dictionaries that are mostly plagiarized.

The book also contains sections on how to choose Chinese and English dictionaries. It also proposes some top dictionaries. I agree with the recommendations, but rather than tell us how to pick out a dictionary, they should have just given us a look at the dictionaries. Most bookstores are filled with cheap but mediocre dictionaries; For the big name Hong Kong and Mainland dictionaries, Taiwan readers have to order on-line. So, the book missed an opportunity to do us a great service by showing us the content of these dictionaries. Nothing beats thumbing through a paper dictionary, but if they could have shown us a half page of each of the major dictionaries, then this book would be an invaluable resource. If I ever make a trip to Hong Kong or the Mainland, then I might try to take some pictures and offer them online. I would also be very happy if someone did that for me.


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